5 Things I Learned While Looking for Jesus at the Detroit Institute of Arts

One of the best parts of my job with InterVarsity is my mandatory retreat day. Multiple times a year, I’m required to spend a workday praying, reading, reflecting, and sometimes (usually) even napping. Last week, partially to avoid napping away the majority of my retreat, I decided to spend my day of reflection in downtown Detroit. My self-imposed itinerary led me to a number of locations, but the bulk of the day was spent at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I was in college, one of my mentors (Sara Barton) introduced me to the practice of listening for God’s voice in the arts. Central to this practice is the idea that—just as God can speak to us through other people or Creation—God sometimes speaks to us through other people’s creations.

Sara’s method was pretty simple: walk around a museum until a particular piece of art arrests your attention. Then, spend as much time as you can with that one piece. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to it, what it communicates about God, God’s image in the artist, and God’s Spirit in yourself. Talk to God about the art and the emotions it elicits. Pray, journal, read Scripture—all in conversation with God within the context of piece of art you selected.

It’s a practice I always admired, but never really tried. So I decided to give it a whirl last week at the DIA.

I entered the museum with a bit of an agenda: I was looking to spend time with a portrait or statue of Jesus. I wanted to see Jesus through the eyes of someone else, preferably someone from a long time ago. And thus, my quest to find Jesus began.

  1. Jesus is everywhere
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

I quickly discovered that there are a lot of Jesuses (Jesi?) at the DIA. He’s easily the most popular guy in the building. There are a couple large areas specifically set aside for Christian art, chapel-esque rooms filled with crucifixes and baby Jesuses.

But the Son of God is not confined to his designated section. Jesus appears in every corner, in almost every era and genre represented in the museum. Ancient, Baroque, Renaissance, Modern. Italian, Spanish, American, Arab, Asian, African. The only place I couldn’t find a Jesus was among the Islamic art (Muslims rarely portray humans in art, and never holy religious figures).  I clearly had plenty of Jesuses to choose from. But none of them did it for me; none of them was my Jesus.

  1. Jesus isn’t looking so great
Image: DIA http://www.dia.org/object-info/28f29621-2c06-41aa-a249-cf0fdc462b0b.aspx?position=26

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Part of my problem with the art I encountered was that, more often than not, Jesus looked just awful. Wherever I turned, I found another bloody, emaciated, exhausted Savior. This makes sense when it comes to the crucifixes—and there were a lot of crucifixes. But Jesus often looked pretty messed up in the other scenes too. He seemed sickly at the Last Supper. He was hunched and limping as he faced opposition in Galilee. Quite a few times, he was straight-up dead; there were far more depictions of Jesus’ burial than I had expected.

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

There’s a place and purpose for images of Jesus as Suffering Servant, but it seems as if—as a whole—western Christianity is disproportionately obsessed with watching him die. And not just in subtle, nuanced fashion; when Jesus suffers at the DIA, he suffers big. Dramatic lighting highlights the agony on his overly expressive face.

Within their original context the hyperbole in these pieces may have made sense, the way stage makeup works to make far-off actors seem more intimate. But up close at the museum, many just struck me as grotesque and other-worldly. The over-the-top suffering of Jesus made him seem disconnected from the actual pain of the real world. This wasn’t the Jesus I was searching for.

  1. Jesus hardly ever rises from the dead
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for info)

The DIA’s Jesus art is dominated by nativity, crucifixion, and communion scenes; Christmas, Good Friday, and the Eucharist are well-represented. But our other big holiday, Easter, is almost entirely absent.

In the three hours I spent wandering the museum, I found at most 10 resurrected Jesuses—and that includes a couple baseball-card-sized etchings. These artists just don’t seem very interested in the risen Christ. A somber baby, a stressful dinner party, and a tortured martyr: these, according to this collection, are the central images of Christianity. The resurrection is more peripheral, like the fish and loaves or the sermon on the mountain.

What bothered me most, though, was how even back-from-the-dead Jesus looked pretty beat-up most the time. In more than one painting, he was still bleeding. His skin was deathly pale. His ribs were showing. He looked more like the walking dead than the risen Lord. It seemed as if, even on Easter, Western Christianity prefers to remember Jesus as he was. You know, dying.

  1. Jesus is rich, handsome, and increasingly Aryan
jesus

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Not every Jesus at the DIA looked miserable; in fact, only maybe half appeared to be in pain. The other half looked really, really good. When Jesus isn’t dying, he’s posing like a Greek god. (Or a Roman Emperor. Or a European King. Basically, whoever is the richest, most powerful figure in the artist’s cultural vocabulary.) He’s glowing like the sun, even during the darkest Gospel scenes. Sometimes, he’s literally plated in gold. And as history progresses, his skin and hair lighten, until he’s whiter and blonder than Justin Timberlake circa 1998.

Also, he’s surrounded by completely anachronistic characters. Spanish soldiers arrest him. British kings bring him gold, frankincense and myrrh. Jerusalem is filled with Italians and surrounded by the hills of Naples. Historical accuracy doesn’t seem to be the slightest concern in many of these paintings; the gospel story is local, regardless of where you live.

Image: DIA (click for info)

Image: DIA (click for info)

Which isn’t a bad thing, per se. The Bible is an ongoing story that we’re all invited into. Imagining Jesus in our own time and place can be a healthy way of realizing that Jesus is in fact alive and at work in our neighborhoods.

Still, something about these paintings made me cringe, even more than the Christs of Perpetual Suffering or Easter Zombie Jesus. In these pieces, Jesus dripped with wealth and power, specifically the exact same wealth and power held by the ruling class. He looked like he’d fit right in among the royal family or the wealthiest merchants—the very people who commissioned these paintings in the first place.

Image: DIA (Click here for info)

Image: DIA (Click for info)

I couldn’t shake the impression that throughout the ages, privileged folks had paid good money to have Jesus recreated in their own image. If Jesus looked just like them, worshipping Jesus wouldn’t feel much different than worshipping themselves.

  1. Rembrandt’s Jesus is entirely different
Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Hours passed. I still hadn’t found my Jesus. And I was running out of exhibits.

Then, I came across a small collection of paintings by the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt. From across the room, I saw a large sign that read: Rembrandt’s Jesus. Maybe, I thought, this will be the Jesus I was looking for. However, the painting I found beside the sign was just like the rest: a blonde, exaggeratedly agonized Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. He was a combination of everything I’d grown tired of in my journey through the museum.

Then I read the sign. The painting I was looking at was not a Rembrandt. It was an example of the Christian art typical of Rembrandt’s contemporaries. Rembrandt’s Jesus was on the other side of the sign. And he was entirely different than the rest.

Rembrandt’s Jesus was olive-skinned and brown-haired. He didn’t glow, but he didn’t seem sickly either. His clothes were unremarkable. His expression was ambiguous and muted. He had “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

If he hadn’t been labelled with a giant sign, I never would have recognized him.

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Image: DIA (click for more info)

Rembrandt’s Jesus looked very little like Rembrandt. Instead of using himself or a look-alike student as the model, he paid a Jewish man to stand in for Jesus. His model wasn’t even a Christian, let alone Dutch.

And by using a Jewish model, Rembrandt was able to offer a more accurate image of Jesus, unlike anything that existed in the museums and palaces of his contemporaries. By looking for Jesus in someone different, someone unfamiliar, he found him.

—–

And I had found him as well. This was the One I had been searching for. I stared into his compassionate eyes, waiting in silence, as if Jesus would begin speaking from within the frame. I’m not sure that he did, but if he said anything, it was this:

“I’m everywhere, but I’m not everything or everyone. If you look for me among the biggest, loudest moments of pain, you might miss me for the spectacle. If you look for me on the cross or in the tomb, you might not recognize my resurrection. If you look for me among the privileged and powerful—people who look like you—you might mistake yourself for me.

“But if you look into the eyes of the stranger—the person who looks nothing like you, the person you’d usually pass by without even noticing—I’ll meet you there.

“Seek, and you will find.”

ISIS, Iraq, and Psalm 55

About a month ago, I mentioned the ongoing crisis in Iraq in a sermon on Psalm 55. At the time, it seemed as if the Christian community in the U.S. was entirely unaware of the situation in towns and cities such as Mosul, especially American churches outside my town (Dearborn has an unusually high population of Iraqi immigrants and other Arab-Americans, so this tragedy was felt earlier and more powerfully here than in the typical American town).

In the weeks following that sermon, this crisis has become a top story among many American Christians. I’m encouraged to see so many of my brothers and sisters identifying with the plight of Iraq’s Christian refugees. However, some of the language and rhetoric coming from my friends and relatives has left me deeply unsettled.

Rather than list my concerns and counterarguments here (I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said better and louder by someone else), I thought I’d add to the conversation by offering of my own reflections on this situation in the light of Psalm 55. I’m not an expert on either Iraq or the Psalms—more informed readers can help me correct any inaccuracies below. But reading Psalm 55 alongside my neighbors and alongside the morning news has helped me identify with our brothers and sisters in Iraq; I hope some of you find it helpful as well.

——

(Since Psalm 55 is a lament psalm, I began my sermon by reviewing the differences between different genres of psalms and explaining the value of lament. I went on to say…)

Lament psalms can be surprisingly refreshing, especially in moments when the bright shiny psalms just don’t resonate, but they can also be really exhausting. And I’m not in the mood for exhausting. And I’m really not in the mood to exhaust you all. So all week, I’ve been wrestling with the question, “Can I just skip this one? Would anyone notice?”

This is a temptation I often face when I read through the psalms, to just skip ahead to a psalm that matches my mood and experience. Some psalms just don’t seem to have anything to do with me, especially psalms like the one we’re supposed to look at together this morning, Psalm 55. It’s all about violent enemies and wicked foes, and… well, just take a second to read this psalm for yourselves.

(It’s definitely worth pausing to read Psalm 55 by clicking here).

The situation this Psalm describes is an absolute mess, to put it lightly. And it’s the kind of mess with which I have virtually no experience. Violence in the city; threats and lies in the streets; terrors and death; malice and abuse; destructive forces promising war; attack and battles; horror and distress—this just isn’t me. It’s not my town, not my neighborhood. This psalm describes the situation in so many cities throughout the world and throughout history, but mine just isn’t one of them.

I don’t have enemies, at least not the kind depicted here. I mean, I’m sure there are people who don’t like me, but I wouldn’t call them bloodthirsty or violent; nobody’s waging a battle against me. I suppose I may have enemies in some geo-political sense—my country’s been at war as long as I’ve been an adult—but I’ve never felt any direct effect of that war. In fact, I had to Google “are we still at war?” just to make sure it was still going on; if I need a search engine to find out we’re at war, it’s safe to say whatever enemies we have aren’t having much of an impact on my life. This psalm isn’t about me, which makes it really hard to pray, let alone preach.

————-

My wife and I were sitting in our apartment last month, when we heard what sounded like Arabic coming from a loud speaker. My initial thought was that it was some sort of call to prayer, but the man’s voice didn’t have the usual melodic lilt to it. (Also, although we live in Dearborn, we don’t live near any major mosque or anything, and we’ve never heard anything like a call to prayer before, so I don’t know what I was thinking.) We were already planning on going for a walk, so we decided to head toward the sound of the voice.

A couple blocks down the road, we saw a parking lot blocked off by cop cars and police officers. In the middle of the parking lot was a small stage with a podium and a banner, surrounded by a few hundred Arab men and women, men on the right holding signs written in Arabic, women on the left wearing headscarves. People were chanting and waving flags I didn’t recognize, but this was clearly not a celebration. The tone of the crowd and the speaker on stage was decidedly unhappy.

And I knew that this was nothing to worry about, that any anxiety I was feeling was based on movies, video games, and cable news, not reality. But we still crossed over to the other side of the street—you know, just to be safe—and hurried past without slowing down.
It wasn’t until we got home that I was able to do a little googling and figured out what was going on. The gathering in the parking lot was a rally to pray and protest against the spread of ISIS, the terrorist organization that has been capturing cities in Syria and Iraq all summer. The crowd we had passed was made up Iraqi immigrants from all of Iraq’s religious communities; there were Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians.

Which makes sense, because violence in that part of the world affects everyone, Muslim and Christian.

The stories coming out of Iraqi churches and refugee camps are heartbreaking. A relatively small group of Islamic extremists have been sweeping through the country, gobbling up towns and executing opponents. When these terrorists attacked and captured Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city, and once the home of 1.2 million Christians—the last remaining Christians were forced to flee.

An Iraqi pastor in Bagdad described this situation in a recent letter he published. As I read this letter, I was struck by how similar it is in both tone and language to Psalm 55:

“Things are so bad now in Iraq, the worst they have ever been… We urgently need help and support. Please, please help us in this crisis.

ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaida as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.

The area is the heartland of the Christian community. Most of our people come from Nineveh and still see that as their home. It is there that they return to regularly… Now the Christian centre of Iraq has been totally ransacked. The tanks are moving into the Christian villages destroying them and causing total carnage. We are faced with total war.

People have fled in their hundreds of thousands to Kurdistan still in Iraq for safety. The Kurds have even closed the border, preventing entry of the masses. The crisis is so huge it is almost impossible to consider what is really happening…

We desperately need help so that we can help the Christians of this broken land just get through this new crisis. Please can you help us? We are desperate… To be honest I don’t know what to do…”

You can practically hear lines from Psalm 55 echoing in the background of this letter.

“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert.”

“I am distraught at the voice of the enemy.”

“I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl about its walls; malice and abuse are within it.”

Psalm 55 may not be my psalm, but it is the psalm of Iraq right now. And it’s being prayed not just across the ocean, but also across the street. The protest down the block from my apartment stood as a stark reminder that the sorrow of Mosul is also the sorrow of my neighbor. I may have the option to hurry past the protest and past this psalm, but many of my neighbors don’t have the luxury of skipping on to another psalm. Their only options are to pray this prayer, or to quit praying altogether.

I think the fact that these kinds of psalms are scattered throughout the book, mixed right in there with the happy and tidy ones, points to something important. The existence and placement of these psalms remind us of our responsibility to join our brothers and sisters in praying this prayer. The luxury of skipping along to a song that feels more applicable or more comfortable is a false option. This is what it means to mourn with those who mourn. If this is the song of our neighbors, it must become our song as well.

—–

I finished my sermon by offering a couple warnings; I’ll wrap up this post the same way:

A challenge like this, as innocuous as it might seem, comes with a couple risks.

First, by praying for those within our body, we’ll inevitably find ourselves praying for those outside it as well. It’s impossible to pray for the thousands of Christian refugees in Iraq without also praying for the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees alongside them. If we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we have no option but to pray for the whole earth.

Second, by joining in the prayers of our suffering neighbors, we’re likely to join in their suffering as well. It’s hard to explain why this even happens, but it does. When we pray for God to show up in the mess, he often invites us to come along with him.

So we might get tangled up in the pain of our neighbors. And we’ll find ourselves praying for people we don’t usually pray for. But what choice do we have? These folks are right here, in the middle of our neighborhood. These songs are right here, in the middle of our Bibles. We no longer have the option to hurry past them.